Pastoral Perspectives

What Has God Heard This Sunday?

On some occasions my younger daughter, Olivia may feel that she is not being heard when the rest of the family members are engaged in conversations during mealtimes. Being more soft-spoken, there are times when we would miss out on what Olivia was trying to say. It also does not help that being the youngest, she is not always so quick in processing her thoughts and articulating what is on her mind. By the time she is ready to respond, we would have already moved along in the conversation.   

While there is certainly room for improvement in the way we communicate as a family, we are grateful that as far as we can tell, our blindspots has not negatively affected Olivia’s relationship with us in any significant way. Olivia remains secure about her family’s affections for her since there are other ways through which she does feel affirmed and loved by us. Nevertheless, we understand that it is important not to take things for granted lest in our inattentiveness or hurriedness, we end up making Olivia feel neglected or ignored. Besides, no one really appreciates having our thoughts or conversations being interrupted intermittently by a shrilly voice of a nine-year old. 

Thankfully, when it comes to getting God’s attention, there is no need for God’s people to raise our voices or kick up a ruckus. As we read about Hagar’s plight in Genesis 16, we learn that God has not left his people to fend for themselves when they land up in a dire situation that is of no fault of their own. 

Pregnant and mistreated by her mistress, Sarai, one can only imagine how helpless and lonely Hagar must have felt as she chose to run away from her household. Resting by a spring of water in the wilderness, Hagar may have wondered whether anyone noticed or cared about her. At possibly one of the lowest point in her life, God’s angel-messenger appeared before her and this unexpected encounter would have brought her much comfort.  

Through the angel’s message, Hagar would learn that she can entrust her future unto God’s hands. Although others have treated her badly in the past, she can still have hope for the sovereign God has a gracious plan for her and her unborn child (v.10-12).  

It was not incidental that Hagar was to name her son “Ishmael” which means “God hears”. Most likely, this was God’s way of assuring Hagar that her harsh treatment under Sarai has not gone unobserved by God. Through Ishmael, Hagar is reminded that despite her lowly status as a slave, God’s ears and eyes are also upon her and not just her masters, Abram and Sarai.  

In many ways, Hagar is to be commended for her faith in God. Being an Egyptian woman, she most likely did not share the same religious background as her masters. Yet, after this divine encounter, Hagar was prepared to face her tormentor once again.  Instead of begrudging God for her misery under Sarai, Hagar readily acknowledged God as “a God of seeing” who looks after her (v.13). Even though God did not mention anything about how she will be treated by Sarai, Hagar trusted in God’s promises. She obeyed God’s instructions to return home and to submit to Sarai (v.9). 

For those of us who are going through some challenging times, let us take heart that our God does hear and see those who call unto him (Ps 34:15-18, Ps 145:18-19, 1 John 5:14-15) and will answer us according to his will. From Hagar’s experience, we see that when we have come to an end of ourselves and sometimes struggle to even find the words to pray (the Bible did not record what Hagar prayed prior to meeting the angel of the LORD), God is more than able to act on our behalf.  

However, we need to be mindful that while God does hear and see us, he does not always answer us in the way we expect or pray for. Even in the case of Hagar, we know that tension remained between her and Sarai. Shortly after Isaac was weaned, Sarah (formerly named Sarai) harshly cast out Hagar and Ishmael from the household and they were left to survive on their own in the wilderness (Genesis 21:8-14).  

Nevertheless, God remains true to his character and promises. He was never far away from this mother-child pair and sustained them in their time of need (Genesis 21:17-20). Although God did not enter into a covenant with Ishmael in contrast to Isaac, it can be said that God was equally gracious to Ishmael, for he was with the latter and blessed him to become a great nation. 

To be sure, God’s people must never take his grace for granted. There are many passages in the Bible that warns of how God is far away and will not heed the prayers of the wicked or unrepentant (Psalm 66:18-20, Isaiah 1:15-16, John 9:31). To be sure, this does not mean that God only answer the prayers of perfect people. Rather it is to contrast God’s people who sincerely seek to walk rightly with God with those who are flippant or spiritually indifferent towards God. 

Just as God is able to hear our prayers that are prayed aloud or amid the turmoil of our wordless supplication, whatever gossip, grouses and grumbling that we utter under our breath or behind closed doors against a fellow Christian or church leader are also picked up by an all-hearing God. Knowing that we will all be held accountable for every careless word we speak (Matthew 12:36-37) and that unwholesome speech displeases God (Ephesians 4:29-30) and can easily harm the community of believers, it is of utmost importance that we learn to deal with what is upon our hearts and minds and relate with others according to what God’s Word clearly teaches us.  

Indeed, Jesus reminds us that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34-35). Hopefully, the more we are convicted that God does see and hear us regardless of our current situation or how people treat us, our heart will be increasingly transformed by God’s grace. As we have seen from Hagar, God is not capricious like how Man or some other deities who may pick and choose whom he prefers to pay attention to and bless. If we have experienced God’s grace ourselves, in the presence of a God who is in heaven, sometimes “it would be far better for our words to be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2). Unless of course, it is time for corporate singing.